Proposals such as those of John Moore and colleagues (Nature 555, 303–305; 2018) for Antarctic glacier geoengineering understate the legal challenges presented by the Antarctic Treaty System (ATS). This system is crucial to Antarctic governance, but faces considerable geopolitical pressure (Nature 558, 161; 2018). It is essential that any activities affecting the Antarctic ecosystem properly engage with the ATS from the outset.
Antarctic geoengineering proposals would not “require global consent” as Moore et al. state, but instead would need the approval of the 29 consultative parties to the 1959 Antarctic Treaty. The Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research is an important independent contributor to the ATS. However, it is actually the Committee for Environmental Protection (CEP), created by the 1991 Madrid Protocol to the Antarctic Treaty, that formally advises the consultative parties about proposals affecting the Antarctic environment.
The Madrid Protocol bans mining and declares Antarctica a natural reserve. We think that the CEP is likely to advise that the “major disturbances to local ecosystems” arising from Moore and colleagues’ proposals — particularly quarrying of local rock and dredging — would infringe Madrid Protocol protections. Geoengineering that affects marine ecosystems might also require separate permission under the 1982 ATS Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources.
Any discussion of geoengineering in Antarctica needs to preserve and strengthen Antarctic governance, not weaken it. This is a task for international lawyers and policymakers as well as scientists.
Nature 560, 167 (2018)